`The French didn't give a damn'

Ten years ago, Marelle Pereira's father was killed protesting at France's nuclear tests. She's still trying to find out why. Jojo Moyes reports

Jojo Moyes
Monday 10 July 1995 23:02

Marelle Pereira's earliest memory is of boarding the Greenpeace boat Sirius, aged six, with her father. She ate green pasta - the first time she had ever even seen it. Afterwards, she and her brother painted the ship's funnel. "We did a rainbow," she said, smiling as she acknowledges the irony. "It was really good. Really professional."

The next memory she reveals comes from two years later. She was in the school playground, when a teacher took her to one side and told her her mother was there to see her.

"I started to cry because I knew something was wrong," she says. "I said `Something has happened to my father, hasn't it?' and she said, `Yes, he's missing, we don't know where he is.' I said, `How come?' She said, `He was on the boat and there was a bomb and he's missing. They can't find him'."

Ten years ago, on 10 July 1985, the French secret service bombed the Greenpeace flagship, Rainbow Warrior, in Auckland Harbour. Photographer Fernando Pereira, who had been helping the protest against French nuclear testing in the Pacific, was killed in the attack.

Two French secret agents, Dominique Prieur and Alain Mafart, were subsequently captured by the New Zealand authorities and jailed for a month, before being transferred by special agreement between New Zealand and France to "exile" on a Pacific atoll.

Less than three years later they were "rescued" by the French military and returned to France. Mafart was subsequently promoted.

Ten years on, the circumstances surrounding Fernando Pereira's death are still murky. Questions remain as to who ordered the bombing of the ship and whether Mr Pereira's death was intended. The answer to that question is something Marelle Pareira, now 18, has spent 10 years trying to block out.

"I was very depressed. I had a lot of problems and it was hard for me to deal with," she says. "Then I realised it was the grief that I had had earlier. I knew he wasn't coming back but I couldn't understand it."

With her long curly hair and her carefully made-up face, on which the faintest traces of puppy fat remain, Marelle looks like any other 18-year- old girl teetering on the edge of adulthood. But for her the transition, recorded by Channel 4's Witness series, was to be both swifter and harder.

She embarked on a quest to find out more about her father and the cause that he died for. It took her first to the islands of French Polynesia, home of the French nuclear-testing programme.

From those who worked with Fernando Pereira on the Rainbow Warrior, she began to build up a picture of the father she scarcely knew. She learnt that the ship's last mission had been a protest against the nuclear tests and to evacuate victims of previous testing from a dying island. "In Tahiti, they treated my father like a hero," she says. "They were pleased to meet me because I'm the daughter of a person they really loved."

Marelle's sense of pride vanished and her pain and incomprehension surfaced when she heard how the two agents had been greeted as heroes on their return to France.

"I got very angry about their promotion," she says. "It was incredible. If you rescue someone you get a medal, but not if you kill somebody."

The teenager's sense of injustice grew when she and her mother finally travelled to France to find out why the mission was considered so important, and to confront those responsible. In New Zealand, she had achieved unprecedented access to those involved. But while Marelle was finally ready to see France, France was not so keen on meeting her. When she identified herself to those involved in the bombing, she met a wall of silence.

"We called them, we wrote to them, we sent faxes ... We tried to call five, six, seven times and every time we got an answer saying he has gone to America or he's on vacation or he's not in the country right now, and they put the telephone down."

Increasingly frustrated, she wrote an open letter to Chirac in the newspaper Liberation, appealing for information about her father's death. The only person who would speak to her was Jean Guisnel, a French journalist, who has written about the bombing.

He told her that Charles Hernu, the then minister of defence who had been one of those responsible for ordering the bombing, had been in the throes of a passionate love affair. That is said to have badly affected his judgement (although this theory has also been dismissed as an attempt to shift the blame from the secret service).

Marelle asked what the French thought about the attack on the Rainbow Warrior. They did not care, came the blunt reply. After his retirement, Mr Hernu was a popular man.

It is one kind of pain to witness people's grief over your father's death. It is another to witness indifference or, worse, approval. "Guisnel said the French didn't give a damn," she says, unhappily. "They thought they got what they deserved. They don't care even now. It was very hurtful."

The answers she got, she says, have not made it any easier to come to terms with her father's death. It is still unclear why the bombs were detonated, or on exactly whose orders. Francois Mitterrand is among those who knows the details, but he remains silent.

"I only have one question left, but that was the main question - `Why?' - and I don't think I'll ever get the answer now. I'm very sad about that," she says. "Are they afraid of an 18-year-old girl? I think sometimes that they must be ashamed, or they would have come forward by now."

Marelle says she is now ready to move on. When she has finished college, she aims to continue the fight against nuclear testing. She speaks with a teenager's straightforward anger about Chirac's decision, announced last month, to resume nuclear testing after a three-year break.

However, while the search helped her "recover", as she describes it, from her father's death, anger has supplanted any sense of forgiveness that may have been possible.

"No, I don't forgive any of them," she repeats. "Not Mitterrand, not Hernu. Maybe I would have forgiven them if they had apologised right away, but it's 10 years later." she pauses. "And they still haven't written us a letter with the word `sorry'."

`Witness: Beyond the Rainbow' is broadcast tonight on Channel 4 at 9pm.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in